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The Sandman: A History of Hell

The Sandman: A History of Hell

By Alex Jaffe Tuesday, August 16th, 2022

In the fourth issue of The Sandman, Dream of the Endless makes his perilous journey to the depths of Hell to retrieve his helm. When he arrives, there seems to be kind of a lot going on. Lucifer Morningstar speaks of a recent power struggle, the realm appears to be ruled by a triumvirate of Lucifer himself and two powerful demons, and somehow Etrigan seems to be involved.

If you only know this part of the story from the fourth episode of The Sandman adaptation on Netflix, then you might not know what we’re talking about. That’s by design. The show simplifies all the affairs of Hell so that you can appreciate Morpheus’s story without further context. But when this issue was first published in 1989, Gaiman and company weren’t just telling a story set in Hell—they were telling a story set in Hell within the DC Universe. And Hell was a place that many writers before Gaiman had taken their characters to before, and which many more have visited since.

Want to know more? Well, allow us to play Virgil to your Dante and explore what exactly what going on in Hell before Dream set foot in Lucifer’s kingdom, and what led to the peculiar circumstances which would ultimately result in the world-changing events of The Sandman’s fourth volume, Season of Mists.

Early Appearances

The very first appearance of Hell in the DC Universe was 1940’s More Fun Comics #56, the second appearance of Doctor Fate. Although only referred to here as “The Region of Dead Souls,” the imagery of Fate’s journey is quite clear as he ventures into the underworld to determine if his nemesis Wotan truly perished in their previous encounter.

In the following years, with the rise of DC’s horror titles, Hell was a popular setting for stories told in comics such as House of Mystery and House of Secrets, though these stories were rarely connected with any ongoing narrative of the DC Universe. The first author to truly bring the horrors of Hell into the DC Universe was Jack Kirby in his 1972 series The Demon. The story begins when the wizard Merlin, in a desperate attempt to protect Camelot, binds the soul of Jason Blood to the demon Etrigan. In The Demon #14, Jason experiences his first taste of Hell as their enemy Klarion the Witch-Boy enchants him to see the terrible realm through Etrigan’s eyes.

The Phantom Stranger’s most persistent enemy, Tala, is the mistress of her own fiefdom in Hell, and tempts men to ensnare their souls for her dominion. Demons like Nebiros, who first appeared in Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing and went on to make Daniel Cassidy into the Blue Devil, and C.W. Saturn, tempter of Superman in the novel Miracle Monday, have similar motivations. In DC’s Hell, a demon is only as powerful and prestigious as the souls they manage to ensnare. Even early in the Bronze Age, we see that the barter and possession of mortal souls is the only currency that matters to the demons under Lucifer’s command.

Superman did once oppose the devil himself in Superman #419, though he stopped just short of identifying himself as Satan or Lucifer. It was one of Superman’s final battles before Crisis on Infinite Earths, and one worthy of the righteousness of Superman.

The Para-Demons

While we’re on the subject of demonology, it’s worth noting here that many so-called “demons” of the DC Universe are not specifically involved in the hierarchy of Hell. Raven’s father Trigon, for instance, as envisioned by creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez, was the ruler of a hellish alternate plane of existence, but specifically not the theological Hell we know of. The Demons Three, persistent enemies of the Justice League of America, are from a far-away galaxy. And just as Darkseid bears little relation as a New God to the monotheistic God, Darkseid’s Parademons are too demons in name only.

The Triumvirate

All right, pay attention, because this is the important part. Most of what we know about Hell before The Sandman comes from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing tenure, which takes Swamp Thing on a journey to Hell and back to retrieve Abigail Arcane’s unjustly damned soul, and the spinoff Hellblazer series, which deals heavily in the soul economy of Hell when it’s not too busy taking the piss out of Margaret Thatcher. A run of Deadman and Etrigan stories in Action Comics #606-608 and #638-641 also plays a role here, where Etrigan maneuvers through Hell’s hierarchy and declares himself its new ruler. But as Lucifer explains in The Sandman, just because a demon says they’re the king of Hell doesn’t make it so.

The real schism of power occurs in Swamp Thing #49-50, the culmination of a story arc which began with the introduction of John Constantine into Swamp Thing’s life. It’s here that the metaphysical forces of the DC Universe gather to battle the Great Darkness, an existential threat which is only now presenting itself again in Dark Crisis. With Hell divided on how to deal with this threat to existence, Lucifer’s dominion of Hell is credibly challenged for the first time, resulting in an arrangement where three rulers would share power over the realm. These three are, at first, the demon Azazel, the demon Beelzebub, and Lucifer himself…or, depending on whether you’re reading The Sandman or Hellblazer at the time, an entity only referred to as “The First of the Fallen.”

The First of the Fallen is a character created specifically so that Hellblazer and The Sandman could tell their own stories about Satan without having to worry about what the other was doing. Both characters are quite different, but are meant to stand in for the classic devil as we understand him in theology. In the DC Universe itself, the First of the Fallen is said to be God’s first creation, predating even the angels, who fell from grace untold ages before Lucifer Morningstar’s rebellion. What the two entities make of each other is a matter left unaddressed. After all, it would defeat the purpose of having two of them.

Over time, the Triumverate’s lineup would change significantly due to the events of Season of Mists, and demons such as Belial—Etrigan’s father—would claim their place in the triumvirate for a spell, as well as such entities as the fallen angel Abaddon and even Etrigan himself.

The Also-Rans

After the events of The Sandman, it seemed like the mystical corners of the DC Universe were suddenly flooded with gods, demigods, demons and other supernatural creatures who all laid claim to the throne of Hell, a few of whom would prove to be significant. Chief among these perhaps is Neron, antagonist of the Underworld Unleashed event in the ‘90s. Neron is not the devil, but a personified incarnation of Hell itself, much as Dream is to the Dreaming. And while Lucifer finds himself above the trading of souls, it’s a game which Neron thrives in, dominating the soul market beyond all others.

The demonic siblings Lady Blaze and Satanus, children of the Wizard Shazam, have been power players in Hell too since introduced by Jerry Ordway in the 1990s. They were Neron’s chief opponents for dominion of Hell in the underworld war of 2008’s Reign in Hell event.

The 2016 volume of Red Hood and the Outlaws ends with Bizarro killing Trigon to assume the throne of Hell, but as we said earlier, Trigon doesn’t actually have anything to do with Hell. He was probably just confused. You know how Bizarro is.

But hopefully, after reading all this, you’re significantly less confused when it comes to Hell in the DC Universe. And if you still have questions, don’t worry. The Sandman on Netflix already tells you everything you need to know. Chiefly that it’s a place you don’t want to be.

The Sandman, starring Tom Sturridge as Morpheus, is now streaming on Netflix. For more dreams, fables and recollections, visit our official Sandman TV page.

Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.